There are 6 important steps HR and business leaders should take in order to develop 21st century leadership capabilities and lead their workforces into the new world of work, writes Anthony Mitchell
Leadership is all about context. For example, we all know that you should lead differently in a crisis, compared to times of smooth sailing.
It’s equally true over time. Think about leading an organisation in 1918, 100 years ago and five years after Henry Ford had introduced the assembly line into his car factories. Assuming you worked in what we think of as an ‘organisation’, it is highly likely that it would be one of the few places you worked in your career and that your career progression was dictated by the careers of the vertical line of managers above you. In such a time, there was nothing pejorative about ‘command and control’ leadership. It fitted the circumstances.
Over the last hundred years, we have witnessed shifts in context that have moulded leadership styles. For example, the need for top talent and its relative scarcity have changed the interplay of labour market supply and demand. As a result, empowerment became a more important component of leadership. The need for diverse perspectives has driven more collaborative leadership behaviours and the desire for a fairer world has made inclusive leadership more important.
But now, we face a very different context. Multiple material changes have evolved and will dramatically increase further over the next five years. These drivers fundamentally impact the skillsets and behaviours of leaders.
“The need for top talent and its relative scarcity have changed the interplay of labour market supply and demand”
1. The focus of human work on only non-proceduralisable activities. The growing potency of artificial intelligence will soon mean that all work that is in any way procedural, even if complex and involving ‘fuzzy causality’, then computing power will be used to do the work more rapidly, accurately and efficiently than any number of humans can. Consequently, if work can be done without human intervention, then it will be. This means that people will move away from procedural work and exclusively into work that cannot be automated. Primarily, this is about work involving skills such as empathy, creativity and collaboration.
2. The end of the traditional psychological contract. Employees now have very different expectations about their career and their psychological contract with the organisation. Whether this is in the form of the gig economy, or simply more transience and different career objectives and timeframes, the impact is that the relationship with the employee means: payoffs need to come quicker; the approach must cater for contributors who are not employees; and the relationship must assume a likelihood of departure in a relatively short time period.
3. The new norm of activity-based and agile ways of working. In all likelihood, tomorrow’s way of working will be very largely project-based, forming diverse teams based on complementary skills for finite time periods and ‘sprinting’ to outcomes. Hierarchy and authority will play a much smaller role, and collaborative skills will matter much more.
4. The new norm of hyper-flexible working arrangements. While workplaces will become more village-like, there’s also a much greater likelihood that the team won’t be physically present for the same days, the same hours or perhaps not physically present at all. Work will be increasingly determined by outcomes
“Leaders must rely much less on authority, control and process and become much more effective at generating results through inspiration, empathy and the ability to foster nimble, creative collaboration”
Not one of the above four trends is controversial. All four are likely to accelerate and become more pervasive. Combining all four trends creates a dramatically different work context than the traditional corporation was designed for, or that leadership concepts in the landmark textbooks of the last 20 years were written for.
Overall, this means that leaders must rely much less on authority, control and process and become much more effective at generating results through inspiration, empathy and the ability to foster nimble, creative collaboration. In other words, leaders will need to focus much more on what might truly be considered leadership.
6 key steps to leading 21st-century workforces
So, how do you lead for superior performance in a world where the focus of work is dramatically different, employees stay for less time, have a looser connection and have very different expectations about career, flexibility and freedoms, and where the concept of a leader itself is changing? And if you are an HR leader, what should you develop in your organisation and in your leaders?
1. Envisage the leader as a leader of volunteers, not workers. Yes, you pay your people, but that is increasingly irrelevant to your leadership style. You will only get the most from your people in the new context if you release the power of volunteerism, because we will be in a time where, from a behavioural perspective, your people are volunteers. And of course, many of your people won’t even be employees, but rather contractors or partners. Ask yourself “If I had no money to offer, what would bring great people here and keep them here?” The answers will include a chance to make a difference, a chance to excel, a chance to stretch and a chance to grow.
2. Get rid of all people processes that reduce intrinsic motivation. Too many traditional organisational processes reduce motivation. In the new world of work, this produces a net reduction in business performance. Instead, cultivate practices that increase felt autonomy, meaning, stretch, mastery and connection to others. At the top of the list: give people more sense of freedom and choice for how they do things (but maintain or increase accountability for outcomes).
“Cultivate practices that increase felt autonomy, meaning, stretch, mastery and connection to others”
3. Focus on a new capability set. Throw out that dated capability framework. There are now two types of capability needed:
- Performance capabilities. These are the human contributions that matter most when AI does all the procedural work. At the top of the list are collaboration, empathy, creativity and judgement
- Survival capabilities. These are the qualities needed to cope with the challenges of the emerging business context. The top two are resilience and change agility.
4. Treat people allocation is as highly as financial allocation. In broad terms, capital has become less important. Many of the world’s most highly valued companies today have required little capital to get to the top – a very different scenario from the twentieth century. By contrast, good people make a huge difference and are scarce. Where they are placed in the organisation (even if staying for a brief time) is critical.
5. Accelerate talent development through mission-critical projects. Again, it might seem strange to invest in people when they could leave the next week, but in fact the opposite is true. You have no time to waste getting the best from your people. Most organisations today are developing their best talent far too slowly. The future requires real-time monitoring of where your top 10-20% of talent is being deployed, simultaneously applying them to your most important business challenges and fast-tracking them to more of their full potential.
6. Improve people measurement disciplines. If you are going to take the five actions above, make sure you have data on them. One of the biggest changes we will see in the next five years is comings getting far more rigorous around measuring, monitoring and evaluation, ensuring that there is robust information to enable accountability, determination of impact and continuous improvement in approaches.
Image source: iStock